Germany's love for cars has put pedestrians at a dangerous disadvantage for decades. New legislation in Berlin aims to tip the balance, but the city faces a daunting task to make the law a reality.
If you have ever crossed a street in Berlin and thought a car had it out for you, that may not have just been in your head.
Faster modes of transport have enjoyed right of way for nearly a century in Germany. That means, generally speaking, pedestrians and cyclists yield to cars and trucks — not the other way around.
"Slow defers to fast," Roland Stimpel, the Berlin director of Germany's Foot Traffic Association (FUSS), told DW, referring to German traffic laws from the 1930s that in large part are still on the books.
A growing number of lawmakers, urban planners and interest groups want to change that. At the end of January, Berlin's state parliament passed a so-called pedestrian law — an amendment to its mobility law from 2018, which focused on improving traffic and safety conditions for cyclists. Both are the first of their kind in Germany.
The new bike lanes on Berlin's major thoroughfares were part of an effort to boost to bike infrastructure around the city
Like the original law from two years ago, which noticeably boosted bike infrastructure around the city, the pedestrian-focused amendment lays out a hefty to-do list: longer green lights for pedestrians, safer school routes for kids, more crosswalks and more benches for older people and others in need of a rest along their route; curbs are to be lowered to make them more wheelchair accessible; construction sites will need to ensure that pedestrians and cyclists can safely navigate around them; and city authorities are supposed to crack down harder on illegal parking and dangerous driving.
FUSS called the passage of the latest amendment a "milestone" for Berlin's traffic system. It was one of several groups that consulted on the law, which passed with the support of the three-way governing coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), the Left and the Greens, as well as the business-friendly Free Democrats.
"The law further pushes the city's transformation from car-first to pedestrian-first, to improve the quality of life for all Berliners," Harald Moritz, the Berlin Greens parliamentary transportation spokesperson, said in a statement.
The new legislation directs each of Berlin's 12 districts to develop a relevant pilot project within three years.
"It's about so many small things," said Stimpel, not "large and spectacular projects like making the city car-free," which would have faced stiff political resistance from auto groups.
Additionally, bike groups now have to accept firmer enforcement of riding and parking on sidewalks, which endanger pedestrians.
Berlin's famous Ampelmännchen traffic lights switch suddenly, leaving pedestrians stranded in the middle of the street
An overarching goal of the mobility law is to achieve zero traffic deaths or serious injuries. In 2020, almost three-quarters of Berlin's 50 recorded traffic deaths were pedestrians or cyclists. That is a higher share than London, a city with more than twice the population.
While motor vehicle deaths across the European Union dropped nearly 25% between 2010 and 2018, according to the European Transport Safety Council, pedestrian deaths dropped 19%. But Germany was below the EU average for year-on-year reduction in pedestrian deaths.
"We have a huge deficit here between what's desired and provided for and what actually gets done," said Stimpel, adding that German cities are bound by federal traffic laws which limit how much they can change on their own.
One example is pedestrian crossing lights. Berlin's famous Ampelmännchen can only be green or red, with no warning in between. People are often caught in the street when the light changes, leading them to panic about how much time they have left to safely cross and giving aggressive drivers a reason to honk.
Just one German city, Düsseldorf, has been permitted to "try out" yellow crossing lights — a trial Stimpel said has been ongoing since 1953.
Berlin officials and local media have touted the mobility law's uniqueness, not only within Germany but worldwide. The superlative comes with a caveat, said Tim Lehmann, the founder of the IUM-Institute for Urban Mobility.
"There are many cities that simply go out and do what we have written into law," the city planner, who was also part of the law's development, told DW. "It's a weak law," he said, pointing to doubts how enforceable the provisions are, and whether the state will face legal consequences if it does not implement them.
"Better that there is a law than not, but it's a big question if it will really make things better for pedestrians, or speed up the transport transition," he said.
Radical urban change is a challenge everywhere. Today's cities were built on decisions made decades ago, driven by often outdated politics and priorities, and new policies have to work within those constraints. Planners say the hurdles faced by Berlin, and Germany more broadly, are different from other places.
The country's dominant auto industry, which makes up a considerable portion of Germany's export-reliant economy, is only part of the answer. Stimpel, the FUSS director, noted that other countries, too, have influential car lobbies, but they've still made more progress for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport than Germany, which he calls "backwards" by comparison.
"Since right after the war, the car in Germany took on an ideological aspect — a symbol of freedom and prosperity," he said. "Driving fast has come to be seen as a natural right."
Berlin, divided by a wall for decades with its western half cut off from the rest of the country, took the need to feel free even further, Lehmann said.
"Within that confinement there had to be some goodies to encourage people to live in West Berlin," he said. "Still today Berliners, both from former west and east, don't want to give up anything that stands for freedom."
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city spent the 1990s primarily concerned with stitching west and east back together, overseen by many of the same officials who were in charge during the car-crazed 1970s and '80s. "Then we lost 20 years without any fresh people or ideas," said Lehmann.
Berlin's red-red-green coalition, which has governed since 2016, has made the transport transition (Verkehrswende) a centerpiece of its platform. But Lehmann is not impressed, saying top officials lack both the interest and ability to see major reform through.
The state government did not respond to a request for comment, but some of Lehmann's urban planning colleagues are more forgiving of current politics.
Tilman Bracher, a mobility researcher for the German Institute of Urban Affairs that took part in the legislation, told DW that Berlin has "set demanding goals, secured enough money and is building out its team." For him, the problem is that the law calls for changes that don't necessarily fit together.
"The task before Mayor [Michael] Müller and his government is not easy," he said.
With state elections scheduled for September, FUSS director Stimpel said he understands the political pressure especially on the ruling SPD to cater to its traditional car-friendly, working class base, some of which has migrated to the far-right party, Alternative for Germany.
Those workers are aging, however, and Stimpel hopes as more of them become pensioners who want to get around safely by foot, they too will join the growing list of civil society partners pushing for urban change.
"Berlin may not be in a position to pull off the huge feat required," he said. "But I'm not giving up hope: A thousand small changes give way to one big one."